Skip over navigation to page contentThe Library of Congress >> Asian Reading Room

Asian Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections


Tibetan Amitayus Sutra.
Tibetan Amitayus Sutra. Shown here is "The Noble Mahayana Sutra Named Boundless Life and Knowledge," the Tibetan version of a Sanskrit sutra in praise of Amitayus, the Buddha of Infinite Life. Amitayus is an important deity in Mahayana Buddhism, and many longevity rituals are based on this sutra. Amitayus is one form of the Buddha of Boundless Light, Amitabha, who is also the protector of Tibet, according to local tradition. Tibetan Buddhism holds that the Panchen Lama is the reincarnation of Amitābha. This unusual manuscript is written in silver ink on dark blue paper. Copying the text in silver or gold ink gains the copier extra merit. (Rockhill Tibetan Collection, Asian Division)

Wutai Shan, one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains, lies to the west of Beijing, in Shanxi province. The large temple complex on top of the mountain has attracted pilgrims for centuries. One of the monastery's more recent guests was Tibet's thirteenth Dalai Lama, who had fled Lhasa during the 1904 British invasion of his homeland. He sought refuge first in Mongolia, then at the lamasery of Kumbum near Koko Nor. In early 1908, he arrived at Wutai Shan with some three hundred attendants.

On June 17, 1908, another distinguished "pilgrim" arrived at the head of a mule pack train, having walked much of the distance from Peking to call on the Dalai Lama. Standing six feet, four inches, William Woodville Rockhill, the U.S. Minister to China, still had the stiff bearing of the French military officer he had once been and was not given to strong expressions of emotion. But after two meetings with the Dalai Lama, Rockhill could barely conceal his excitement in a twelve-page letter describing the meetings to Pres. Theodore Roosevelt. The letter is among Roosevelt's papers in the Library's Manuscript Division.

The Dalai Lama presented Rockhill with a number of gifts, one of which was a beautiful Buddhist text called the Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom, now in the Asian Division's rare book collection, a gift from Mrs. Rockhill in 1942.

Vajrapani Than-ka
Vajrapani Than-ka
. A unique form of Tibetan art, the than-ka is a painted cloth scroll featuring objects of worship framed in brocade for use as a support for meditation. This than-ka depicts Phyag-na Rdo-rje (Vajrapani), a Bodhisattva who represents the power of all the Buddhas and who conquers all negativity. Above the main figure are past lamas who practiced the teaching tradition related to Vajrapani. (Alo Chhonzed Tibetan Collection, Asian Division)

As noted earlier, Rockhill played an important role in the development of the Library's Asian collections and especially in making the Library one of the world's leading centers for Tibetan books. During his youth in France, Rockhill developed a strong interest in Tibet that remained with him during his years as an officer in the French Foreign Legion, a stint as a rancher in New Mexico, and a long career as a diplomat and China specialist. He is best known as the framer of America's "Open Door" policy toward China at the turn of the century. But Rockhill remained first and foremost a scholar. A book Rockhill published in 1891, The Land of the Lamas, grew out of his 1888-1889 journey into eastern Tibet and Mongolia. The Smithsonian Institution sponsored Rockhill's second trip to Tibet and Mongolia in 1891-1892 and published his detailed travel diary. Throughout his long career, Rockhill published a number of other scholarly works on Tibet and China, and his personal library became the heart of the Library of Congress's extensive holdings on Tibet.

Religion played a central role in traditional Tibetan society, and the Library's holdings of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are especially strong. The Tibetan Buddhist canon is contained in the Kanjur, usually consisting of about a hundred volumes of sutras, and the Tanjur, most editions totaling some 225 volumes of commentaries. Of special value to scholars, the Tibetan canonical texts are accurate translations of the original Buddhist texts, written in Sanskrit between 500 B.C. and 900 A.D. Although many of the originals were lost, they can be reconstructed using the Tibetan translations. The Library of Congress has several rare woodblock printings of the Kanjur and Tanjur and in addition holds one of the first modern printings of the Bon-po Kanjur, the scriptures of Tibet's pre-Buddhist religious tradition.

Rockhill's donation included an edition of the Kanjur he acquired from the monastery of Derge in eastern Tibet. The Library of Congress also has a Tanjur printed at the Narthang monastery in central Tibet. This rare work was originally obtained by another leading Tibetologist, Dr. Berthold Laufer, who collected Tibetan texts for two libraries in Chicago: the Newberry and the John Crerar. In 1928, the Crerar Library transferred an important group of Laufer's Tibetan books, including the Narthang Tanjur, to the Library of Congress.

During one of his expeditions in western China, the redoubtable Joseph Rock obtained another valuable addition to the Library's holdings of Tibetan sacred texts. On behalf of the Library of Congress, Rock purchased a complete set of the Kanjur and Tanjur in 1926 from the famous Tibetan monastery of Choni in China's Kansu province. The fine quality of Choni's wooden blocks and its excellent Tibetan paper, strengthened by the lamination of eight sheets together to make an individual page, make the Kanjur and Tanjur purchased by Rock of the highest caliber. They are also very rare, since the monastery at Choni, including the printing blocks for the Kanjur and Tanjur, was completely destroyed by fire in 1929 during a period of armed conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Kansu. The only other complete copy of the Choni Kanjur and Tanjur is in China, although a partial set is in Japan.

Tibetan Musical Score
Tibetan Musical Score
. Music is a major form of expression in Tibetan Buddhist rites and rituals. This Tibetan manuscript is a small musical score used for chanting rituals in Buddhist ceremonies. Curves, rather than scales, are used to record the correct recitation melodies, all orchestrated to the accompaniment of bells, cymbals, and other musical instruments. Scholars speculate that the Tibetan curved notation is one of the oldest forms of musical scoring in the world. (Rockhill Tibetan Collection, Asian Division)

The Tibetan Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita Sutra) in 100,000 Verses
"The Tibetan Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñaparamita Sutra) in 100,000 Verses." This illuminated manuscript in Tibetan is one of twelve volumes of a major Mahayana Buddhist scripture known as the Prajñaparamita Sutra in 100,000 verses. Introduced into Tibet from India around 750 A.D., the Prajñaparamita literature forms a central part of the Tibetan philosophical tradition. It explains the ideal state of mind, resulting from perfect compassion and wisdom, that penetrates beyond appearance to reality. On this particularly ornate volume, probably dating to the eighteenth century, the exterior sides are painted with religious symbols. On the right side are the Triple Gems representing the founding principles of Buddhism: the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha. The frontal piece is covered with five layers of different colored brocade, representing the Five Buddha families. Painted illustrations on the first folios depict two of the thirty-five Buddhas of confession and two of the sixteen Arhats. (Tibetan Collection, Asian Division)

The contributions of Rockhill, Rock, Laufer, and others have made the Library's Tibetan-language collection one of the largest in the West. Besides the Buddhist and Bon-po scriptures, the collection contains a wide range of history, biography, traditional medicine, astrology, iconography, musical notations, grammars, social science, and secular literature. The poems and legends of Milarepa, Tibet's twelfth-century poet-saint, are especially popular, and both old and modern editions can be found in the collection. Another work of historical importance in the Asian Division's collection is the Mai Bka' 'bum, the collected works of Tibet's famous seventh-century king, Songsten Gampo. Aside from covering their own history, Tibetan historical materials are of special interest to scholars because they are sometimes able to fill in blank spaces in the history of India and Inner Asia.

Tibet has long fascinated Westerners, and early accounts of travellers found eager readers over the centuries. The first European to travel from India over the Himalayan mountain range to enter Tibet was the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio de Andrade. Driven by stories of a Christian community supposedly living in Tibet, Andrade disguised himself as a Hindu and left Agra in March 1624 with a group of Indian pilgrims. After numerous adventures, he reached Tsaparang in western Tibet five months later. A copy of Andrade's account of the journey, Nvevo descvbrimiento del gran Cathayo, o reynos de Tibet, published in Lisbon in 1626, may be found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Another rare, early work on Tibet found in that division is a language text, Alphabetum Tibetanum Missionum Apostolicarum Commodo Editum, by Antonio Agostino Giorgi, published in Rome in 1762.

Tibetan Almanac
A Tibetan Almanac
. Astrology played an important role in traditional Tibetan culture, for both the laity and the monastic community. Almanacs such as this one in cursive Tibetan script were meticulously compiled each year by lamas trained in astrological and calendrical arts and divination. Unlike most Tibetan books, almanacs were bound along one side. This almanac is for the Water Horse Year in the thirteenth "rab byun" (Buddhist cycle), or 1762. (Rockhill Tibetan Collection, Asian Division)

HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections

The Library of Congress >> Asian Reading Room
( November 15, 2010 )
Legal | External Link Disclaimer Ask A Librarian